Thursday, November 01, 2007

Truth x 3

A few things from different bits of my life and thoughts coming together oddly.

1. Last year, one of the students in my "Legal Issues of the 21st Century" seminar discussed in a paper the possibility that better understanding of how the mind works might produce a real lie detector, one that reliably reported whether a speaker believed that what he said was true. There is some, very slight, evidence that such a thing is on the way. What effects would it have on our society?

2. My second novel, Salamander, is a fantasy--unlike my first novel, with magic. One of the things that can be done by some mages is truthtelling. One of the faults of the novel, currently sitting at my publishers waiting to be read, is that I didn't put much thought into the question of how a society would be different if it was possible to tell when someone was (subjectively) lying.

3. Last but not least, it recently occurred to me that we have empirical evidence on the question. There have been many societies, including one of the plains Indian tribes covered in my other seminar (Legal Systems Very Different From Ours), whose members believed that an oath taken in a particular form had supernatural consequences--that perjurers would die. A residue of that belief survives in our society in the practice of testifying under oath.

By looking at a society where such beliefs were strong and nearly universal, one ought to be able to learn a good deal about what consequences reliable truth telling would have, whether in a fantasy society or our own high tech future.

Two questions for commenters:

1. What effects would you expect it to have?

2. What do we know about the effects that it actually had?


Anonymous said...

"Jerry, just remember, it's not a lie if you believe it."

Donald F. Linton said...

One implication of an accurate lie detection technology is that torture would become an reliable method of extracting information from people.

Anonymous said...

The Truth Machine by James Halperin goes into some detail as to what changes we might expect in a society with a "perfect" lie detector.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the first question, the TV series "Babylon 5" explores it in some depth. On the show advanced aliens have altered human genes so about 1/10000 people are telepaths - able to scan somebody's thoughts and to detect when people are lying. The response of earth's government is to make it mandatory for all telepaths to join a "Psi Corp" with the strongest telepaths appointed as "Psi Cops", whose principal job is to enforce the law on telepathy.

The use emphasized on the show of the "lie detectors" is in mediating commercial negotiations - many times the show features two businessmen negotiating and a hired telepath informing on when one of the parties is lying or being less than honest. Other uses and consequences (sometimes legal and sometimes not) of the "lie detector" aspect on the show include:

1) cross-examining witnesses in courts of law,

2) locating suspects or leads in an investigation outside ones jurisdiction,

3) locating rebels in a war zone,

4) blackmail,

5) interrogation,

6) torture,

7) attempting genocide against the "lie detectors",

8) interviewing potential employees.

The implied but unstated message of the show is that in #8 only the rich would be able to afford to hire good telepaths, creating an obvious disparity between rich and non-rich. The underlying attitude of the show seems to be that while infallible "lie detectors" would have some slight commercial benefits to society, on the whole they would create more chaos and evil than good.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand a general inner discipline of honesty in a society can lead to much higher levels of freedom and satisfaction. One of the consequenses can be that non-synergetic transactions fade away. It would be impossible to sell things people don't need and the seller know this. Boss-worker relationships would also change a lot - a lot of people would immediately leave their job, and find an other. This is especially true for politicans and television people.

Global culture shift from the egocentered world to an altruistic world.

The future of Hollywood is also questionable in such circumstances. Finding an actor to play an evil character in Batman X would be certainly an almost impossible task.

IMHO the overall feeling of living in a society without lies is much more pleasant than in a dishonest society.

Lippard said...

I don't think beliefs (as opposed to assertions about beliefs) are necessarily binary true/false. Our memory is reconstructive, and we can easily come to believe things about ourselves--including what we believe--that are not completely accurate. There's some truth to the quip, "How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?" (which I'm probably not recalling accurately).

It seems to me that once consequence of a strongly believed premise like "Anyone who gives this oath will die if they don't tell the truth" is that *failing to die* would persuade people that what they have said is true, even if they had some doubts about it at the time. That is, the belief in the efficacy of the oath would have the potential to build confidence in statements that they previously doubted.

jimbino said...

In "the question of how a society would be different if it was possible to tell when someone was (subjectively) lying,"

David presumably means to say,

"the question of how a society would be different if it were possible to tell when someone was (subjectively) lying."

It is possible, however, that he meant,

"the question of how a society would be different if it had been possible to tell when someone was (subjectively) lying."

In any case, "was" is incorrect here. The continual abuse of the subjunctive mood on this blog is so tiresome.

Anonymous said...

What effects would I expect nearly universal success in determining the truth of other people's statements?

Well, for one, dating would be much more efficient...

Will McLean said...

One place to start would be fantasy RPGs where similar powers existed. Back when I was playing AD&D, a high level cleric could determine if you were lying with a commune spell. Partially as a result of this, player on player crime was rare. Criminal characters put a lot of effort into not being captured.

One implication of your truthtelling is the immense temptation for a corrupt truthteller. Which could be countered by redundancy, unless there was a conspiracy...

Anonymous said...

THis is going to be a long version of Clay's very short post:

The most obvious effect of the belief that you'll die if you break your oath is to give an even stronger advantage to psychopaths than they have in our society. They'll not only be able to lie and break their promises - but everyone else will take their continued life as evidence that they told the truth and kept their promises.

I suspect the "accurate lie detector" will suffer from much the same handicap - psychopaths just have to learn to believe that whatever story they made up is the truth, while those of us with a conscience and a firm connection to reality are handicapped.

There are also the problems Jim Lippard mentioned, that our memory is not at all like a tape recorder, and we re-construct the event each time we think about it. We regularly see 1/10 of what we thought we saw, filling in the details between the few things that caught our eye. If we keep going over it in our mind, we'll both erase conflicting memories and "remember" the reconstruction that filled in what we didn't really see.

A binary "truth/lie" detector will reduce the incidence of deliberate lies, but also tend to make people believe testimony - which may be mistaken or reconstructed - over physical evidence. And I very much doubt it will catch the worst of the deliberate liars.


Anonymous said...

In a world without lies you feel perfectly safe because you always know all you want to take a count on.

The first lie was the first moment, when you experienced pain.

Steve_Roberts said...

I am doubtful that reliable lie-detection could be done, for example, if one sincerely believes something to be true, even if it is not, this falsehood would be undetectable. Anyhow, here are a few suggestions

1. A sharp drop in risks (and need for risk-mitigation) in transacting with other people, especially with strangers.

2. This leads to a sharp reduction in transaction costs

3. This leads to a strong widening and deepening of the division of labour

4. The conventional medium or large firm loses much of its advantage vis-a-vis small firms and independent individuals, who are now much better able to cooperate to achieve large goals and thereby compete with large firms

5. Lower transaction costs mean that many goods currently regarded as 'public goods' lose that status

6. Reduced risks mean that much government activity - justified as risk-mitigation - is rendered unnecessary

7. The scope of government is sharply reduced because unnecessary government activity is impossible to truthfully justify

8. Sharp reduction in violence and threat of violence in ordinary life, due to the impossibility of getting away with it

9. International relations transformed as diplomacy and bargaining become transparent

10. There are questions you never ask amongst friends and family. Indeed, you mark someone as an outsider by asking such a question.

11. Finally, 100 years later, the 'Market for Lemons' is dropped from the textbooks

Michael Vassar said...

How do we know how strong such beliefs were and how sincerely they were held?

Unknown said...

David: I second the recommendation of The Truth Machine. A truly terrific first novel.

Thanks for the link PhilR -- I didn't realize Jim Halperin has made it available for download.

Along with pursuing the societal implications of a Truth Machine, the book is set up in an unusual way -- as a biography looking back in time, to roughly the present day, telling the life story of the main character.

I'm curious if anyone has read another novel that takes a similar approach. I've read a lot of SF but this is the only one I can recall structured in this fashion.

Russ Nelson said...

Of course there is a community of people who regularly tell the truth: Quakers. You might ask them what it's like to tell the truth all the time, and to feel confident that other people around you are also telling the truth.

There's a Quaker Gathering every summer, around the 4th of July weekend. This summer it will be in Johnstown, PA. You might enjoy attending. After all, as the joke goes, when this Quaker dies and goes to heaven, he sees all these people wearing yarmulkes in the Quaker section. He asks God about it, and God says "Oh, well, some of my best Jews are Friends."

Anonymous said...

That would depend on what constitutes a lie. I can believe that I am God, but will the machine pick up the obvious fact to any outside observer that I am not? And if this machine were to be produced, who would use it? It would have a very high cost, and would be avalible to the very rich, or governments, but very few private individuals would possess them. On the first point, what if people could train themselves to believe something? Like cult "Brainwashing" and hypnosis. Someone could use these techniques, and if they succeeded, than they would have a very strong innocence plea. Black market organizations gangs, ect. would quickly manufacture drugs, and teach tequniches to fool the machine, and its value would then go down, then everyone would be able to buy it. Most likely it would be used in preschool to find out who stole the crayons.